Friday, March 03, 2017

Sex, Death, Science, and the Female Monstrous: Wood Contra Cronenberg, Revisited

As I say below, I'm doing a bit of a "best of" thing, here, where I post some of my favourite pieces of my own writing online, while I can, so they're not lost, sitting on a hard drive or on backissues of a magazine that no one outside the university system can access while I am in a hospital or such.

The following article appeared in an issue of the now defunct Canadian film studies magazine Cineaction. It was also a term paper at UBC. I believe the following version of it has never been published in any format; Cineaction, when it ran, insited on edits, because, let's face it, this piece is very, very long, but - sorry - I have the luxury here of putting the full essay into the world. (The "Cineaction cut" is much more streamlined and omits certain areas, like the attack on the hot tub girl in Rabid, where my speculations ran a little wild; theirs is, I begrudgingly admit, probably the better version of the piece, but to be totally honest, I am not sure where it might be on my computer, at this point, and am fond of this version as well.

A disclaimer: this article is probably only for die-hard Cronenberg enthusiasts, people who have seen Shivers, Rabid, and The Brood on multiple occasions, and/ or have read Robin Wood on those films, particularly if they're interested in a feminist/ progressive "reaction" against Cronenberg's films.  I hope Jen and Sylvia Soska will read it! It is my only major work of film criticism, and, I hope, will contribute to future discussions of Cronenberg, long after he and I have both passed on. At the very least I'd like to earn a footnote SOMEWHERE on Wikipedia: immortality!

One of my regrets as a writer is, when talking to David Cronenberg for the Georgia Straight, I didn't feel comfortable, in my role as a journalist, challenging him as thoroughly as I might have or could have, based on my having written this - particularly when he started revisiting answers similar to those in the Ayscough interview quoted below, of which, as you'll see, I had done a very thorough evaluation. I didn't have the guts, ultimately - nor did it really feel professionally "responsible," as a journalist, to dig too deep into counterarguments and such. I ended up doing more of a puff piece, really. It's hard to challenge someone you revere, you know?

I did send him a copy of it, but who knows if he looked at it. I suspect he is not that interested!

One final thing: if you don't know Robin Wood's work, by the way, or haven't read a lot of film criticism, it might benefit you to find The Shape of Rage in a library before sitting down to this (that book is easier to locate than the other of Wood's writings that this references, in The American Nightmare pamphlet, and essentially replicates Wood's arguments, so you can get by on his chapter in The Shape of Rage alone.)

Thanks to Ernest Mathijs, whose cult movies class at UBC provided me the opportunity and methodology to make this essay possible.

Also bear in mind that the last movie ever that my Mom and I watched, in hospital, before she died was Shivers - at her request! She had a lot of fun - laughing at the gory bits, and particularly the "I'm hungry for love" scene!).

Sex, Death, Science, and the Female Monstrous: Wood Contra Cronenberg, Revisited

By Allan MacInnis

For an admirer of the films of David Cronenberg - especially if he or she is possessed of liberal politics - the charges levied against Cronenberg’s cinema by critic Robin Wood in the 1970’s and 1980’s remain provocative years after the fact. In essays written in 1979 (in the pamphlet The American Nightmare) and 1983 (“Cronenberg: A Dissenting View” in The Shape of Rage), Wood makes a compelling case for regarding Cronenberg as a reactionary, based primarily on his first three “above-ground” features, Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), and The Brood (1979). Wood describes Shivers as being “premised on and motivated by sexual disgust;” and Rabid and The Brood as showing that the “ultimate dread” for Cronenberg is “of woman usurping the active, aggressive role that patriarchal identity assigns to the male”(1) - something which leads to horrifying repercussions. Since these three films - the main focus of Wood’s “attack” - his own word for it (2) - deal with scientists whose attempts to benefit humanity go dreadfully awry, Wood further concludes that “Cronenberg’s movies tell us that we shouldn’t want to change society because we would make it even worse.”(3) While one may be left with a sense that Wood is overlooking aspects of these films, it is equally undeniable that some of his criticisms stick. As Cronenberg has himself responded to these criticisms, and Wood in turn has offered rebuttals, the opportunity presents itself to weigh both sides’ arguments against a close viewing of these three early features, to see which of Wood’s claims have the strongest impact, and which show instead the perils of being too reductive in pursuit of a politicized criticism. Of particular interest for this paper will be to see if a “left-wing case” for Cronenberg’s films may be constructed, such that Wood himself suggests might be made - but by someone other than himself. (4)

1. Attitudes Towards Science

It is useful to begin with a consideration of the role of science in Cronenberg’s early features. Both Wood and Cronenberg’s supporters, such as William Beard, at times echo the same argument, that attempts to improve society in these films will only make it worse. Wood offers a précis of Shivers, Rabid and The Brood that highlights this implication:
A man of science invents something (an aphrodisiac, a new technique of skin grafting, a new method of psychotherapy that he believes will benefit mankind and promote social progress (in Shivers and The Brood, explicitly a form of liberation); he uses a woman as the (chief or sole) guinea pig for his experiments; the results are unpredictably catastrophic, escalate way beyond his control, and eventually produce a kind of mini-apocalypse.(5)
Using similar terms, Beard, in an essay also appearing in The Shape of Rage, writes of how, in Cronenberg’s universe, “catastrophe arises from the rational attempt to improve the human animal:”
Although Cronenberg denies any animus towards or even criticism of science is to be found in his films… the parasitology in Shivers, the plastic surgery in Rabid, [and] the physiological psychology in The Brood… all have unpleasant results ranging from the personally destructive to the socially cataclysmic.(6)

Alternate readings of Cronenberg’s relationships to science are, however, possible. One would be to consider the downfall of Cronenberg’s scientists as tragic - a comment not on the folly of science but on the inevitability of human decline and death, made more poignant in the face of the aspirations of science. Cronenberg has stated that he feels “empathy for doctors and scientists,” and takes them as his “persona” in his films.(7) He argues that, in a way, “everybody’s a mad scientist, and life is their lab. We’re all trying to experiment to find a way to live, to solve problems… those characters really represent people in general, who somehow have to figure out what they’re doing, what their worth means, what their relationship to society is, how to use their creative energy and how to deal with their destructive energy.”(8) That ultimately our attempts to make sense of our circumstances and improve our lot end in death is frequently seen as one of Cronenberg’s core themes.(9) This is a theme best exemplified, however, by Cronenberg’s later work, especially The Fly (1986) and Dead Ringers (1988); Wood cannot be blamed for saying, in 1983, that “the films lack any sense of the tragic,”(10) since that quality - with some exceptions for Rose/Marilyn Chambers in Rabid, for which Wood allows - is not so strongly emphasized in the early features.              
Another strategy would be to argue that the scientists in Cronenberg’s early films are not necessarily engaged in progressive endeavours, and that to assign such a reading to their actions from the outset both oversimplifies matters and skews the argument. This is perhaps easiest to demonstrate in the case of Emil Hobbes/Fred Doederlein in Shivers, who is first presented as an anonymous murderer and sex criminal, and whose project, when we discover it, seems both anti-social and “crackpot”(11) - the sort of thing which might be indulged by an aging academic who has, on the one hand, become alienated from his body, and on the other, entertains a hubristic fantasy of remaking the world as he would like to see it, with the key element being that he will thereby increase the frequency with which he gets laid. We are informed that he has previously gotten in trouble for his sexual advances on a young female patient, which may play a role in his schemes, particularly since it is this same patient he is now experimenting on. The character of Rollo Linsky/Joe Silver, in trying to discover, after Hobbes’ death, what he was up to, summarizes his findings on the phone to Roger St. Luc/Paul Hampton, quoting from Hobbes’ private papers:
Hobbes believed that “man is an animal that thinks too much - an over-rational animal that has lost touch with its body and its instincts’… in other words, too much brain and not enough guts. So what he came up with to help our guts along was a parasite that’s - here - ‘a combination of an aphrodisiac and venereal disease that will hopefully turn the world into one beautiful mindless orgy.   

Wood betrays some confusion as to why Hobbes has “seen fit… to include a VD component in his aphrodisiac parasite,” saying it is for “reasons never made clear,” (12) yet the implication seems clear enough: Hobbes so values his personal fantasy over the general good that he is willing to sacrifice the latter for the former, hoping his parasites will spread, as indeed they do. He is someone who has rushed to embrace a sort of revolution driven by his own personal agendas, without thinking through the consequences for others - at least until it is too late, as his last-minute reversal in the murder of Annabelle/Cathy Graham suggests; he is what Cronenberg describes as a revolutionary “poseur,” someone who is “driven primarily by private anguish rather than social vision” (13)  Far from being a figure of social progress, Hobbes is a questionable figure from the outset, a “mad scientist” whose political program for the rest of the world should be viewed with skepticism.(14)  

At least some aspects of Hobbes’ character are mirrored by Dr. Hal Raglan/Oliver Reed in The Brood, of whom it is again far too simple to say he is attempting something socially progressive. Like Hobbes, Raglan appears to place private interest over public good, concealing what must surely be seen as a negative aspect of his therapeutic technique: Psychoplasmics’ creation of a brood of half-human children who enact the rage of one of his patients, and whom he hides away in the attic while continuing his sessions with her. Raglan is doubtlessly fearful of the repercussions for his Somafree Institute, should such news become public - because what does “Pyschoplasmics Causes Cancer,” the slogan cooked up by one embittered former patient, have on “Psychoplasmics Produces Murderous Mutant Children?” Raglan has been compared, in criticism, to the charismatic, self-serving, and authoritarian leader of a cult (15); when Carveth/Art Hindle says ringingly at one point that he doesn’t trust Raglan, this is clearly a valuation audiences are meant to share. Cronenberg’s mistrust of such a figure of male authority is hardly without progressive political import, enough so that it is curious that Wood neglects to mention it; he argues that in the world of The Brood, “patriarchal dominance is ‘natural’” and that “any deviation from it will result in disaster,”(16) yet Raglan, problematic as he is, is surely the most charismatic father figure in the film. He is identified as such (“Daddy”) in the opening therapeutic demonstration, and is arguably even the “father” of the brood, having usurped Frank’s role vis-à-vis Nola/Samantha Eggar. It seems more plausible to read Raglan as figuring Cronenberg’s mistrust of arrogant, self-serving male authority than as representing progressive political endeavour. 

 Unquestionably, however, some of the science in Cronenberg’s films is well-intended, as the example of Dr. Dan Keloid/Howard Ryshpan in Rabid demonstrates. In contrast with both Raglan and Hobbes, up until he becomes infected, Keloid appears conscientious and well-meaning at all times. Keloid does use an experimental technique to save Rose, which proves to have disastrous results, but he does so with the best of intentions; we are told that only by operating on Rose using his skin-grafting technique does he have any hope of saving her. It might still be mentioned that the plastic surgery clinic named after Keloid is privately-owned and for-profit endeavour, that Keloid will doubtlessly stand to profit from his technique if it proves successful in saving a life, and that he may not be wholly ungrateful for a test subject; but if we generously assume that all this is irrelevant - that Keloid really only has Rose’s interests (and the betterment of humanity) at heart - we here have the strongest case yet for Wood’s interpretation of Cronenberg’s attitude towards science and social progress. If Cronenberg is not setting out to demonstrate in Rabid that a scientist’s well-intentioned attempts to do good lead to chaos, what should we make of Keloid’s role in the narrative? The director’s commentary track for the 2004 DVD release offers some interesting suggestions, which require some elaboration to clarify.

In the Rabid commentary, Cronenberg frequently comments on instances where his characters fail to understand what is happening around them and/or underestimate their own vulnerability. This happens first when we see Hart/Frank Moore sitting in the ambulance, as Rose is wheeled into the clinic: Cronenberg observes that we here see “our hero trying to comprehend what’s been set in motion, which of course he cannot.” When Rose, transformed by her surgery into a sort of vampire only able to feed on human blood, flees the clinic, an encounter with a truck driver shows her, according to the director, “feeling kind of confident and thinking maybe somehow she could be a normal girl” by accepting an offered sandwich. Her subsequent fit of vomiting shows that just like Hart, she has failed to understand her situation. Cronenberg seems positively amused at the situation of one of Rose’s potential victims, during the shopping mall pick-up, saying “here’s a guy trying to be really cool and thinking he’s really scoring bigtime… Of course, he doesn’t really know what he’s getting into.” (17) The director repeatedly underscores in his commentary the failure to understand the implications of a turn of events and the limits on a character’s knowledge. Though he doesn’t remark on it, the mechanisms of Rose’s ultimate death also result from her failure to understand the realities at stake.

Most remarkable in this series are Cronenberg’s observations about Keloid; he frames Keloid’s failure to understand what he has done in terms of the vice of hubris, of relevance also to Raglan’s prideful manner and the apparent self-serving wish-fulfillment of Hobbes’ fantasies. When Keloid comforts Rose after she regains consciousness, Cronenberg remarks - using language similar to that seen above - that we are seeing a “classic sci-fi case of a doctor or scientist thinking that he’s on top of things and not really at all being aware… of what he’s set in motion. And he’s about to pay for that.” This latter remark, offered with some trace of satisfaction, suggests that in Cronenberg’s view Keloid deserves what happens to him, for having too blithely tinkered with nature. This is borne out by the satisfaction that Cronenberg appears to take in the madness that Keloid himself exhibits after Rose’s attack. As we see Keloid foaming at the mouth and raving inside a police van, Cronenberg observes: “this is a particularly pleasing sequence, of course, because you now have the confident authority figure who has really screwed everything up showing himself now as depraved and corrupted and destroyed - basically, a victim of his own cleverness.”18 If we accept with Beard that in Cronenberg’s films that “science… must stand as a representation of human reason in general”19, what we have in such statements is an argument, not for abandoning attempts to improve society, but for maintaining at all costs a humility towards nature, being wary of the limits and pitfalls of reason and regarding with skepticism science’s too-eager attempts to tinker with human biology.

All of this, unremarked upon by Wood, has potentially politically progressive implications - for instance, though they are never explicitly developed in Cronenberg’s cinema, environmentalist ones: Cronenberg also says on the commentary that not only have we failed to accept our own bodies, and are “constantly not just trying to understand them but to understand how to change them, modify them, improve them,” we have further “never accepted the environment as it was given to us. We want light at night and we want heat when it’s cold and so on.” (20) Of course, science fiction cinema, and to a lesser extent horror cinema, has been used since the time of Frankenstein (1931) to express anxieties and misgivings about the excesses and errors of science; indeed, Cronenberg himself was once considered as a potential director for a Frankenstein remake (21). Given such observations, Wood seems too hasty in dismissing the defense offered by one of Cronenberg’s early supporters, John Harkness, that Cronenberg’s films are “about science.”(22) 

It is not just that science is shown going awry in Shivers, Rabid, and The Brood that Wood finds objectionable, however, but that the scientists in each case perform their procedures on female subjects. To some extent, this actually serves to lessen the fault of Cronenberg’s women - because what is Annabelle’s promiscuity compared to Hobbes’ insane experiments or his brutal murder of her? - but as Wood acknowledges, this is also an aspect of Cronenberg’s project that changes over time, making his films “less actively objectionable.” (23) Referring to Scanners and Videodrome, Wood writes that Cronenberg’s post-Brood works “introduce two important modifications…: the chief experimentee/ victim is no longer a woman, and the form of science involved, the ambition of the scientist, has far less progressive connotations, so that the ‘awful warning’ the films offer is less unacceptable.” (24) A further observation that Wood could not make, given the time of his writing, is that increasingly through his career, the degeneration witnessed in Cronenberg’s films takes place not in society in general but within the body of the male scientist himself (The Fly and Dead Ringers being the paramount examples). Sometimes this happens in reaction to the female, but it is never her fault. This can be read as an attempt on the director’s part to “own” whatever neurosis about the female is unveiled in Rabid and The Brood. It is also worth mentioning in this regard that, perhaps in part due to the criticisms Cronenberg received for his depiction of Nola, by critics including Wood, after The Brood, monstrous women are almost entirely absent from Cronenberg’s cinema, with women either taking on the role of healthy, normal bystander, equal participant, innocent object of unhealthy male fixations, or, in 2007’s Eastern Promises, outright heroine. 

2. Cronenberg, sex and women

Wood, in his introductory essay in The American Nightmare, outlines four characteristics that contribute to the horror genre’s “reactionary wing” - the depiction of the monster as “simply” evil (ie., the devil); the “presence of Christianity;” the “presentation of the monster as totally non-human” (as the “‘progressiveness’ of the horror film depends partly on the monster’s capacity to arouse sympathy”); and the “confusion (in terms of what the film wishes to regard as ‘monstrous’) of repressed sexuality with sexuality itself.”(25) The first three criteria are of dubious relevance to Cronenberg’s cinema, where religion is almost entirely absent and the “monstrous” is usually a human that is diseased, albeit generally in a novel and horrifying way. It should be emphasized that if anything, Cronenberg’s films are filled with sympathy for the diseased; he has compassion and fondness even for the most monstrous figure in Shivers, Nick/Allan Kolman, AKA Alan Migicovsky, who, as an autoerotic narcissist, is shown as being simply less interested in his high strung wife than he is in playing with his lumps, which he does with the heavy breathing and self-touching of a male masturbatory session. Nick is not a comfortable depiction of male sexuality, but nor is he unsympathetic; in fact - as will be the case with Rose in Rabid - we are uncomfortable with Nick because of the sympathy Cronenberg extends to him, not in spite of it. Further, not only is Cronenberg sympathetic to the diseased, he goes so far in interviews as to express that he is “sympathetic to disease” itself (26)  and that he thinks “most diseases would be very shocked to be considered diseases at all,” being merely organisms that are “trying to live [their lives]”. (27)  As it is Wood who identifies sympathy for the monstrous with a progressive use of horror, he surely he must concede (though he does not in either article that this paper draws on) that this is an attribute Cronenberg’s cinema has in spades. 

If we may thus acquit Cronenberg from the first three descriptors of reactionary horror framed by Wood, the fourth - the treatment of “sexuality itself” as monstrous - may well have been written specifically with Cronenberg - or Cronenberg as experienced by Wood - in mind. Wood writes that “Shivers is a film single-mindedly about sexual liberation, a prospect it views with unmitigated horror… [It] systematically chronicles the breaking of every sexual-social taboo - promiscuity, lesbianism, homosexuality, age difference, finally incest - but each step is presented as merely one more addition to the accumulation of horrors.” He describes the film as being not just hostile to any particular manifestations of sex, but as being “anti-everything” though in particular, “sexually aroused preying women are presented with a particular intensity of horror and disgust.”28 

There is an element of the subjective in this. “Disgust” is a strong word, and while some elements of Shivers might seem disgusting - the phallic/ excremental parasites, the lump traveling down Janine’s (Susan Petrie) throat - others, like the glamourous/ sexualized representation of cult star (and former softcore actress) Lynne Lowry, as Nurse Forsyth, seem anything but, appearing instead to be intended to titillate a fanboy audience. 

While such titillations - like the suspense that accompanies the “bathtub attack” on Betts/Barbara Steele, as we wait for a parasite to crawl its way into her vagina, or the winking play on porno tropes that sets up the film’s lesbian seduction and kiss - may be juvenile, pandering to an unenlightened heterosexual male viewership, and/or politically problematic, they also contain elements of humour and irony, for genre-savvy filmgoers, and insert moments of beauty and pleasure into their ugliness - as when Betts, initially seen writhing in pain in her bath, is shown briefly in apparent ecstasy. 

This is also true of the representation of Rose in Rabid - played by an actress well-known as a sex symbol, she is depicted as desirable and attractive even at her most abased, as in the scene where she is shown writhing in withdrawal on the bathroom floor, wearing what amounts to a wet T-shirt. 

While it is unfortunate that both Cronenberg and Harkness make an issue of Wood being gay-identified in their rebuttals in The Shape of Rage - a rather pointless counterattack, since none of Wood’s arguments depend on a queer reading of Cronenberg’s cinema - it is possible that issues of sexual orientation are in fact relevant here; that Wood, as a gay viewer, is simply misunderstanding some of the (however dubious) pleasures of these films. While unquestionably sex is important to all three of the Cronenberg features that Wood criticizes, “sexual ambivalence” (a term Cronenberg himself employs in Naked Lunch) seems more appropriate to a description of Shivers and Rabid than “sexual disgust;” the relationship of the director to sex seems more one of “attraction/ repulsion” than the “unmitigated horror” that Wood describes.(29)

This ambivalence is nowhere better expressed in Shivers than during the scene where Nurse Forsyth offers a defense of the film’s sexual revolution. Her speech (“all flesh is erotic flesh”) seems designed to persuade the audience that some of what they have been receiving as horrifying needs to be reevaluated, and is quite convincing, at least until the bug starts coming out of her mouth. There is comedy in the scene where St. Luc hits and gags her, which seems to fly below Wood’s radar: on the one hand, St. Luc is trying to keep the parasite from attacking him, but on the other, he could be read as being threatened by her vision of a sexualized, polymorphously perverse society. The scene is arguably a potent, and feminist-friendly, image of the “gagging” of a female, previously seen with Annabelle, but here made to look neurotic and a bit silly - an index of how much St. Luc (but not the director or audience, who presumably, Wood excepted, “get the joke”) is threatened by liberated sexuality. When Forsyth finally turns on St. Luc in the pool, however intimidating she may be, she is presented at her sexiest, and as Cronenberg has noted, viscerally and emotionally, the audience wants the kiss to happen, are on her side. (30) 

Most notably absent from Wood’s critique of Shivers is an acknowledgement that the real butt of the film’s comedy lies in the character of St. Luc, who functions as a “straight man” to the film’s subversions of social norms. As with Hobbes, Raglan, and Keloid, Wood apparently misses aspects of Shivers that critique the male protagonists’ character. These are elaborated on by Beard:
St. Luc is basically a comic figure - a nice send-up of the cool, up-to-date professional who always feels he has things under control. It is fitting that he should be the last to succumb to Cronenberg’s wild Eros, especially after his indifferent shrugging-off of his nurse’s lazy striptease in an earlier scene. As one after another of the film’s characters fall to the parasites, his immunity begins to seem like a perverse willfulness. Why should he survive when all the best people have succumbed? In this way Cronenberg co-opts the viewer’s sympathies for St. Luc’s eventual destruction. In that final horrifying/ ecstatic climax, he is in some respect getting a richly deserved come-uppance. (31)
St. Luc has at least some similarities with Keloid and Raglan in the films that follow, as a man of science who presumes to rise above nature. His disinterested observation of Forsyth’s “striptease” - as the director says, “he’s a saint, don’t forget” (32) - occurs while Linsky speaks on the phone about man being an “over-rational animal;” this is clearly meant to apply to St. Luc, and that he is ultimately overwhelmed by what science produces can again thus be seen as his fitting reward. More than that, as Hobbes’ apparent representative and (along with Linsky) heir to the problem that Hobbes creates, the ending of Shivers answers the violence we see when Hobbes murders Annabelle; St. Luc’s “come-uppance” restores a sort of order to the narrative by having a female, previously the victim of the male, turn the tables and assume the powerful position.

Shivers can thus be to some extent cleared of the charges leveled against it by Wood, but this is less easy to do in the case of Rabid. Beyond any doubt, Rose in Rabid depicts an “active, aggressive female sexuality,” the release of which precipitates a social breakdown, in the form of disease her armpit penis “bite” carries. Where Wood again oversimplifies matters, and appears to misunderstand Cronenberg, is in his claim that this “released female activeness” is “dramatized as horrific and disgusting;”(33) in fact, it is dramatized as sexy and sympathetic, and containing elements of retributive justice - all of which complicates matters considerably.  

Cronenberg himself speaks to charges of misogyny on his Rabid commentary: “Yes, she becomes a monster, but in the genre, when you become a monster, this is not a criticism - anymore than the Jeff Goldblum character in The Fly could be said to be misanthropic, because I turned a man into a monster as opposed to a woman.”(34) The parallels between Seth Brundle and Rose - both of whom are changed by science, grapple with their condition, and end up tragically dead - are sufficient that the analogy bears exploration. For one thing, Brundle’s character in The Fly clearly connects to a commentary on masculinity, particularly on masculine sexuality, since his degeneration is presented as an aspect of a sexual trajectory he is placed on from the film’s outset, with plot points revolving around his lack of sexual experience, his jealousy, his desire to father a child, and so forth. Brundle is not ultimately regarded as a misandric representation of masculinity, since the film is full of pathos and sympathy for him, but much of the film’s richness lies in its portrait of the pitfalls of male psycho-sexuality.

So if Brundle speaks to “man,” does Rose speak to “woman?” If so, what kind of portrait of woman do we have? Rose is impulsive (she “feeds” without thinking or understanding); she is given to expressive emotional displays (she is frequently shown screaming or writhing); her survival becomes dependent on her ability to manipulate men with her looks (attracting predators for her to prey on); she seems heedless of the consequences of her actions (she denies being responsible for the “plague,” seems barely aware it is going on); and is inclined to defer blame for it onto the men around her (as when she screams at Hart in Mindy/Susan Roman’s apartment). Finally, when Rose, thanks to Hart’s outburst, finally begins to feel doubt about herself, she puts herself to the test in a way that is poorly thought-out and, because she doesn’t listen to her boyfriend’s warnings, leads to her death. These characteristics seem easily connected to a reading of the female character, but not a very positive one.

Contrasts between Rose and Brundle are also instructive here. Unlike Rose, who takes several victims and starts a plague that kills hundreds, the only man Brundle harms is Stathis Borans/John Getz, who has come to Brundle’s workspace prepared to kill him. Brundle preys on no one, and his “crimes,” such as they are - attempting to fuse with Veronica/Geena Davis and the unborn baby Brundle - are mitigated in a way that Rose’s crimes are not: the film explains at least some of Brundle’s transformations in the “insect politics” monologue, which prepares us for his changing into something psychologically, as well as physically, less than human. No such explanation is given for Rose; once she grows her “vampire armpit penis” as a result of her plastic surgery, she seems to have no compunction whatsoever about using it to suck blood, taking her first victim almost as soon as she awakens. It is true, as Cronenberg mentions in the commentary, that her vampiric condition is not caused by her and is not an aspect of her nature, but her feeding is presented as no less instinctual, as if her armpit penis has formed along with all the knowledge she needs to use it correctly. To some extent, her monstrosity is mitigated by her attempts to find an ethical approach to feeding, as when she attempts to satiate herself with cow’s blood, but some of the victims she takes, such as the hot tub girl - to whom we will return - are fed upon and/or killed without any hint of conscience, out of sheer predatory lust. If Brundle did such things from the outset of his transformation, given the extent to which the film frames itself as being “about” masculinity, he could indeed be taken for a monstrous representation of a man.

So far, Wood’s criticisms of Rabid hold up rather well, but there are mitigating and complicating elements: there are satisfying, quasi-feministic, and at least arguably progressive aspects of Rose’s predation that must be noted, which may at least partially vindicate Cronenberg’s claim that she is a “heroine and not a monster.”(35) Having been “changed” by her surgery, she adapts by seeking out or taking advantage of situations where men might prey on her; even when not seeking out “predatory” transactions, the points where she takes victims often involve situations where a woman might normally be seen as disempowered or the potential victim of a sexual assault by a man. Carol J. Clover, in Men, Women and Chainsaws, finds it remarkable that at the end of various slasher films, male audiences are brought into identification with and sympathy for the “Final Girl” in her battle against what is usually a monstrous masculine figure.(36) Similarly, it is remarkable that Cronenberg has his audience (doubtlessly, for a low budget horror film starring Marilyn Chambers, being largely male at the time of its release) identify with Rose, particularly when she stalks sexual predators. The eight people she “preys on” directly in Rabid are as follows:

i) Lloyd. Lloyd means Rose no harm, even protests when she embraces him (“this is really weird”), but this scene no less presents a scenario where sexual abuse of a female might happen; as if to underscore the point, a nurse, when seeing the blood on Rose’s sheets, interprets what happened as “he tried to molest her while she was still in a coma.”

ii) The drunken farmer, who assaults her. Clearly he has rape in mind - “I got something you can drink off, and it ain’t no whiskey neither.” He is surely “asking for it,” and it is not outside the bounds of possibility that audience members might find it extremely satisfying when Rose gives him what’s coming to him.

iii) The hot tub girl, the most problematic of Rose’s victims. More on her below.

iv) Keloid. Doctor-patient sexual abuse is not unknown; though it does not happen here, Keloid is open to the charge that he has abused his authority by using techniques on Rose that prove to be radically unsafe, without her knowledge or consent. There is a sense that, in attacking him, Rose is “turning the tables” on this power relationship - resonating off Beard’s comments about St. Luc’s “come-uppance” in Shivers.

v) The truck driver. Again, a lone, attractive female hitchhiker is a very possible target for a sexual assault. It surely counts in Cronenberg’s favour that this scene will be quoted in interesting ways in a horror film by a female filmmaker, in Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (2001). (Note after the fact: I have since spoken to Ms. Denis and been told her truckdriver/ hitchhiker scenes were NOT an intended homage to Cronenberg, and that Trouble Every Day owes far more to the work of Vancouver photographer/ musician Jeff Wall).

vi) The porno theatre pickup. Cronenberg on the commentary for this scene: “Here’s Rose finally really coming to terms with who she is and what she is and what she has to do to survive. She’s become the hunter. And she’s going deliberately to a place where she will be hunted in order to ‘turn the tables’ on the predators she’s going to meet in this place.”(37) Cronenberg emphasizes in the film how sleazy the man who approaches Rose is - lying about his intentions, saying he wants to sit next to her to protect her from other men and to have some of her popcorn. He begins to touch her almost instantly, ignoring Rose’s comment that she is always being bothered by strange men when she goes to porno theatres. We see him entirely through her eyes, and cannot but feel, again, that he gets what’s coming. It is odd that neither Cronenberg nor Wood comment on the extremely fitting justice of this scene, that a porno movie actress who might be seen as having been sexually exploited in her career ends up playing a character who preys on a porno theatre attendee. Surely the irony was not lost on Chambers.

vii) Mindy: “I don’t want it to be you!” Rose’s feeding on her friend will be the crime she seems most upset by, when realizations of what she has done start sinking in.

viii) The apartment lobby pickup, played by director Alan Moyle. Rose explains to Hart on the phone, in waiting for her victim to awaken, that “I suddenly realized you might be right - if you are right, about my being a carrier, I mean - I murdered Mindy! I murdered a lot of people! So I decided to try a little experiment, just to prove you were wrong…” There is no sense that the Moyle character is getting what’s coming to him; in fact, it is now the male’s turn to be an instrument of justice. If Rose has “turned the tables” on various men by preying on them, she arrives at her “heroic” end (as Cronenberg describes it (38) by creating a situation where the tables are “turned back” on her - where her victim becomes her killer.

The girl in the hot tub stands as an exception to the pattern (also because Rose appears not just to drink from her but murder her, as her body is later found in a freezer). Given Rose’s occasional fits of conscience, she appears strangely without hesitation in taking the hot tub girl as a victim, and is presented doing so in a sexualized, predatory manner. Again, this is not merely “disgusting” - both Rose and the hot tub girl are presented as attractive, and Cronenberg comments over the scene that even in nature, predation can be very sexy. (39) He even comments on the genre reference to lesbian vampire cinema, the point of which is often to titillate. This does not seem sufficient as an explanation for the inclusion of this scene, however. Does it serve to demonstrate that Rose’s sexuality has been phallicized? Are men in the audience encouraged to get “turned on” by identifying with Rose in this quasi-rape? There may be elements of this in the film, which raises all manner of troubling questions, but a final, provocative possibility also suggests itself, that seeing a woman as a victim through Rose’s eyes ultimately aids the audience in identifying with Rose later, when she begins “turning the tables.” Since audience identification throughout Rabid is so closely tied to Rose, whenever we see Rose being “hunted” by men, our identification remains with her. The hot tub girl is in fact the only time in the film we see a woman through the lustful eyes of another character; by seeing the girl through Rose’s eyes, we can better understand what it is like for Rose to be on the receiving end of the lustful gaze of the men who approach her, and thereby find justice in her actions.

Whatever the word for such psychology may be, it is not simply “misogyny.” Rose is in many regards sympathetic, attractive, an arbiter of justice, and the film’s main character - something very unusual for a horror film made at this time. Wood lessens the impact of his arguments by failing to acknowledge such elements, and seems to vindicate Cronenberg’s claim that his criticism exhibits traces of the employ of “a Procrustean bed of applying a standard, and the things that fit are good and the things that don’t fit are bad.”(40) This is not to say that there is not also a troubling element of misogyny (or at least anti-feminism) in suggesting, as Rabid seems to, that “giving a woman a penis” will result in social disaster, but it does suggest that Cronenberg’s response to Rose is far more complex than Wood allows.

We are, however, from Shivers to Rabid, seeing a marked increase in the intensity of anti-female aspects of Cronenberg’s project; these will climax with The Brood, the least defensible of the three films. Questions of The Brood’s misogyny turn almost entirely on a consideration of the representation of Carveth’s wife, Nola. It is crucial to understanding Cronenberg’s depiction of this character that the director freely admits the autobiographical nature of The Brood, and that Nola is meant as a stand-in for his ex-wife, whom he had just divorced. Cronenberg, interviewed about the film, explains that “The Brood… was cathartically satisfying in a very direct way. Some of the violence in that movie was very cathartic for me to get on screen… I can’t tell you how satisfying the climax is. I wanted to strangle my ex-wife.”(41) 

Even Cronenberg’s casting may have been informed by his desire for catharsis; he remarks that it is a “personal little weirdness” on his part that Samantha Eggar bears some resemblance to his ex. (42) Such autobiographical elements in the film have led at least one critic, Caelum Vatnsdal, to clear Cronenberg of accusations of misogyny, since - as Vatnsdal says somewhat glibly - “one viewing of The Brood makes it plain that, rather than hating and fearing all women, Cronenberg hates and fears one woman in particular: his ex-wife.”(43) Wood feels freer to generalize, seeing Nola as representation of “female activeness (masculinity)” (44) with the depiction of her at the film’s climax being “remarkable for its literal enactment…of the Freudian perception that, under patriarchy, the child becomes the woman’s penis-substitute - Samantha Eggar’s latest offspring representing, unmistakeably, a monstrous phallus.”(45) Not all critics - including feminists - agree with this interpretation; Tristane Connolly observes that “it is the wrong shape to be phallic” (46). Still, as such a reading fits with the clearly phallic extrusion that comes from Rose’s armpit in Rabid, it seems a defensible one.

Cronenberg would argue that there is no reason to read Nola as representing all women, however. “As a creator of characters, I believe I have the freedom to create a character who is not meant to represent all characters. In other words, I can create a woman as a character who does not represent all women.”(47) Wood objects to this, seeing it as “merely another instance of [Cronenberg’s] extraordinary ideological innocence” (48), but there is some truth in the point the director makes, which becomes particularly apparent when he applies the argument to his depiction of Videodrome’s kinky radio host Nicki Brand/Deborah Harry. He argues, “So what if I show Debbie Harry as a character who burns her breast with a cigarette, does that mean that I am suggesting that all women want to burn their breasts with cigarettes? That’s juvenile. That’s ridiculous.” (49)    

The problem is, Nola and Nicki Brand are treated in remarkably different ways by the director. Throughout Videodrome, Cronenberg encourages audiences to respond to Nicki as an individual. She is complex and self-contradictory, in the way humans tend to be, speaking against “overstimulation” while wearing a red dress, taking a compassionate and dominant role with her callers while being masochistic and submissive in private. Further, the director seems to have no great personal investment in Nicki’s fate; we are allowed by the film to feel however we will about Nicki - the film makes no case for our liking or hating her, or for generalizing from Nicki to women in general.

None of this can be said of Nola. With the exception of a very few scenes where we see Nola’s inner torment, the general thrust of the film is to encourage audiences to identify with Frank in his act of murdering her. She is portrayed as biologically monstrous, possessed of an organ that seems not only phallic but appears as a grotesque caricature of female internal anatomy. She is unfazed at the thought that her brood has committed murders on her behalf and seems entirely willing to have them harm her daughter to one-up Frank. Worse still, the implication is that it is Nola’s biology, and not Raglan’s meddling, that is behind her transformation: we are told that she had strange lumps on her throughout her childhood, that she was “born” to prove the value of Psychoplasmics, and that - in Nola’s own words - she is a “very special person” because of this, all of which suggests that her monstrosity is innate. Since her mother was abusive and her daughter also shows signs of strange lumps at the film’s end, there is the suggestion that this innate monstrosity is in fact a characteristic of the female - that women (or at least three out of four of them present as characters in the film) are biologically predisposed to it.    

Another aspect of Nola’s monstrosity that bears remarking upon is that nothing in the narrative balances it out - something quite exceptional in Cronenberg’s cinema, which is often characterized in terms of ambivalence, contradiction, and a balancing of opposites. These are features of the director’s psychology which Cronenberg himself has remarked upon:
I’m cursed with balance, which is to say I immediately see all sides to the story at once. And they are all equal, they all seem to have equal weight… The standard way of looking at Shivers is as a tragedy but there’s a paradox in it that also extends to how society looks at me. Here is a man who walks around and is sweet - he likes people, he’s warm, friendly, he’s articulate and he makes these horribly diseased, grotesque, disgusting movies. Now, what’s real? Those things are both real for the person standing outside. For me those two parts of myself are inextricably bound together. The reason I’m secure is because I’m crazy. The reason I’m stable is because I’m nuts. (50) 
This is borne out in his films, where Cronenberg typically weighs both sides of an argument, and creates an equal-and-opposite force for each protagonist or monster. The horror of the parasites in Shivers is balanced by the release of repressed energy they bring; Rose’s monstrosity and the chaos that ensues from it are balanced to some extent by her empowerment and the justice she imparts. Similarly, Cronenberg’s own statements about these films are rife with contradiction/balance. He admits to “a certain savage joy” (51) in showing the residents of the antiseptic, orderly Starliner Towers “running, screaming, naked down the halls” in Shivers (52) but he also admits openly that revolution frightens him (“People who say ‘Revolution now’ and aren’t worried by it are foolish. The lesson of history… is that revolution brings with it death, pain, anguish and disease; often nothing positive to replace what was destroyed.”) (53) Similarly, Cronenberg, while expressing subversive glee at getting to shoot Santa Claus in the shopping mall sequences of Rabid (54) has also made statements defending middle class values (“I was raised in a basically middle-class way, and I’m not prepared to totally throw out middle-class America. I think there are some things that are very valuable in the middle-class” (55). As Handling writes “Cronenberg’s world is full of this continual dialectic tension, incorporating the dualities of good and evil, the mind and body, the rational and the irrational, the id and the superego, liberation and repression.” (56) Those with experience of Cronenberg’s oeuvre are invited to find their own examples - there is no shortage.

The Brood stands out from the director’s other films not just because of its autobiographical elements, but because in the film, Nola’s grotesque biology is nowhere balanced by either an equal evil on the part of the male (as whatever shortcomings Carveth or Raglan may have, they are no monsters), nor by a concomitant good offered by Psychoplasmics, which seems dubious and cultish from the film’s outset. Any considerations of the value of therapy are completely abandoned when we see Nola licking the blood and afterbirth off her newborn broodnik – the image of her monstrosity is so horrifying it overwhelms all else in the film.

Some of the ideological naïvete that Wood accuses Cronenberg of can perhaps be seen in his puzzlement that the scene of Nola’s licking in particular was selected for censorship.

I had a long and loving closeup of Eggar licking the fetus that was quite fantastic. I really regret that it’s not in the final version of the film. The ironic thing is that when the censors, those animals, cut it out, the result was that a lot of people thought she was eating the baby! That’s much worse than I was suggesting… What we’re talking about here is an image that’s not sexual, not violent, just gooey… gooey and disturbing. It’s a bitch licking her pups. Why cut it out? (57)
Without wishing to defend censorship, one obvious reply might be that the image is an inexcusably misogynist representation of the female, a grotesque caricature of motherhood, and one more reason why we might identify with Frank in murdering Nola. That Cronenberg fails to understand why the images of the “bitch licking her pups” might be viewed as offensive demonstrates that there may indeed be pieces missing from his political self-awareness.

All the same, there are other readings of The Brood possible. Stephen Schiff - who describes Nola as a “warm, immensely attractive figure” (!!!)58 - sees her as “the reflection of the filmmaker as artist. Her giving birth is the ultimate act of self-expression, a perfect metaphor for the way an artist wills his creation into being but cannot entirely control it.” (59) As puzzling as this may seem as a reading of The Brood, it is quite in keeping with Cronenberg’s own comments about his previous monstrous female, Rose, and in general about characters of his who are 
forced to become outsiders, not necessarily by their nature but by circumstances beyond their control. In some ways it’s always been to me the archetype of the artist, who becomes a kind of creature, becomes a monster, becomes an outsider because of his perceptions, because of what he feels driven to do by his art. (60)
This is to say that if the representation of Nola in The Brood is indefensibly misogynist, it still need not be the last word on the film, or on the artist who crafted the character - especially since Cronenberg’s later cinema, as already mentioned, shows the development of an artist more than willing to query himself and own his issues with women. If the depiction of Nola in The Brood serves as the strongest argument in favour of Wood’s “attack” on Cronenberg’s cinema, it need not be used as the basis of a thorough repudiation of Cronenberg’s early features. If anything, it stands out as an exceptional moment, the sole point where Cronenberg loses balance and allows his emotions to overwhelm him.

Robin Wood’s arguments against Cronenberg’s early features have force precisely because he does actually see Cronenberg’s reactionary side quite clearly. There are, beyond a doubt, moments in all three of the films in question where Cronenberg depicts “active” women as monstrous, holds up the ideas of sexual liberation and female emancipation as horrifying, and cringes at the prospect of social upheaval. Where Wood goes wrong is that these elements are often only half of a binary, presented (Nola aside) alongside equal-and-opposite forces - a joy in revolution, a hostility to middle-class complacency, a fascination for monstrosity, and a desire to see things fall apart. Left to choose between images that vacillate between attraction and repulsion, approval and disgust, beauty and ugliness, revolution and reaction, sympathy and horror, Wood tries to force Cronenberg to occupy only the latter half of each binary; yet both sides are often equally present in Cronenberg’s cinema, and need to be noted in any attempt to read these films. Cronenberg’s skill at articulating his own contradictory impulses is precisely what makes his cinema valuable for progressive purposes, even if his occasional excesses prove problematic: his cinema provides a venue for working out ones own ambivalences, for acknowledging what is both empowering and horrifying in social (or bodily) change, and for exploring the fertile but troubled ground between culturally conceived binaries, for what liberation may be found there.

With thanks to Tom Charity and Ernest Mathijs. Allan MacInnis is a Vancouver freelancer and cinephile and admirer of both the works of Robin Wood and David Cronenberg.


1. Robin Wood, “An Introduction to the American Horror Film,” in The American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film (Toronto: Festival of Festivals, 1979): 24.

2. Robin Wood, “Cronenberg: A Dissenting View,” in The Shape of Rage (Don Mills: Academy of Canadian Cinema. 1983): 115-116.

3. Ibid., 128.

4. Ibid., 125.

5. Ibid., 128.

6. William Beard, “The Visceral Mind: The Major Films of David Cronenberg,” in The Shape of Rage, 19.

7. Paul M. Sammon. “David Cronenberg: Canada’s One-Man Horror Industry Shakes Off the Stigma of Being a ‘Schlock’ Director,” in Cinefantastique 10:4 (Illinois: 1980): 26

8. Ibid., 26.

9. Serge Grünberg, David Cronenberg: Interviews with Serge Grünberg (London: Plexus, 2006): 39-40.

10. Wood, 1983, 132.

11. Beard, 24.

12. Wood, 1979, 24.

13. Chris Rodley, Cronenberg on Cronenberg (Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992): 66-67.

14. These arguments fit with Ernest Mathijs’ observation that the “revolution” depicted in Shivers raises the question not of the “morality” of revolution, but of its “pragmatics: what succeeds in overthrowing an order, and who benefits?” Mathijs sees this “attitude encapsulated in the moniker ‘Hobbes,’ which our mad scientist shares with the English seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, famously known for his homo homini lupus (man is a wolf to men) - stressing self-interest and survival as the key motivators to human actions.” Simply put, Hobbes has designed a revolution of which he hopes he will be the beneficiary. See Ernest Mathijs: The Cinema of David Cronenberg: From Baron of Blood to Cultural Hero (London: Wallflower Press. 2008): 35-36.

15. Schiff, Stephen. “The Brood.” Movie review, in Produced and Abandoned: The National Society of Film Critics Write on the Best Films You’ve Never Seen. (San Francisco: Mercury House. 1990): 256-258.

16. Wood, 1983, 131.

17. David Cronenberg, Rabid Commentary (Toronto: Somerville House, 2004.)

18. Ibid.

19. Beard, 19.

20. Cronenberg, Rabid commentary

21. Sammon, 34.

22. Cited in Wood, 1983, 134.

23. Wood, 1983, 128.

24. Ibid., 129.

25. Wood, 1979, 23.

26. Rodley, 84.

27. Ibid., 82.

28. Wood, 1979, 24.

29. Wood, 1979, 24.

30. See, for instance, the interview with David Cronenberg in Adam Simon’s The American Nightmare: A Celebration of Film’s from Horror’s Golden Age of Fright (New York: Docurama, 2003).

31. Beard, 19-20

32. William Beard and Piers Handling, “The Interview,” in The Shape of Rage, 178.

33. Wood, 1983, 130.

34. Rabid commentary

35. Rabid commentary

36. Carol J. Clover, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992): 35-41.

37. Rabid commentary

38. Rabid commentary

39. Rabid commentary

40. Susan Ayscough, “David Cronenberg: Sex… Porn… Censorship… Art… Politics… And Other Terms.” Interview. Cinema Canada #102 (Scarborough: Canadian Society of Cinematographers, 1983): 16.

41. Rodley, 84.

42. Ibid., 76.

43. Caelum Vatnsdal. They Came from Within: A History of Canadian Horror Cinema. (Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2004): 124.

44. Wood, 1983, 130-131.

45. Wood, 1979, 24.

46. Tristanne Connolly, “Strange Births in the Canadian Wilderness: Atwood’s Surfacing and Cronenberg’s The Brood” in The Journal of Canadian and American Studies #28. (Tokyo: Sophia University, 2011): 80.

47. Ayscough, 17.

48. Wood, 1983, 131.

49. Ayscough, 17.

50. Beard/ Handling, 179.

51. Beard, 19.

52. Beard/ Handling, 179.

53. Rodley, 66-67.

54. Rabid commentary.

55. Ayscough, 17.

56. Piers Handling, “A Canadian Cronenberg,” in The Shape of Rage, 102.

57. Rodley, 85

58. Stephen Schiff, The Brood movie review, in Produced and Abandoned: The National Society of Film Critics Write on the Best Films You’ve Never Seen. (San Francisco: Mercury House. 1990): 259.

59. Ibid., 262.

60. Rabid commentary.

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